Next to the central processing unit (CPU), the graphics processing unit (GPU) has the most impact on your PC’s performance. The graphics card translates the information that your PC is working on into images and sends them to a display. The more powerful the GPU, the faster that information can be displayed, and the better your visual experience will be overall.
In the early days of PCs, the CPU was responsible for translating information into images maintained in special memory spaces called “frame buffers” and then painting those images to displays. General-purpose CPUs aren’t very fast at performing these kinds of processes, and so “graphics accelerators” were created to speed things up. This became more important as graphical user interfaces (GUIs), such as Windows, became more popular.
Today’s GPUs are very good at processing large amounts of image information and performing parallel tasks, making them incredibly fast at not only displaying text and graphics in windowed GUIs but also at processing the 3D graphics of today’s advanced video games. GPUs can also efficiently run other processes that involve manipulating lots of data in parallel.
Read our guide below to learn more about choosing the right graphics card for you, and then head over to PC Gaming CR GPU page to start shopping.
Why does your graphics card matter?
For most people, gaming is the most intensive graphical task that you will ask your PC to perform. It’s no surprise, then, that serious gamers spend hours researching the latest GPU technology and often upgrade their GPUs on a regular basis. As GPUs get faster, games are written to take advantage of the extra speed, and that pushes manufacturers to make even faster GPUs.
If you’re not a gamer, then you might not care as much about your GPU’s capabilities unless you run other kinds of applications that can make direct use of a GPU’s special processing capabilities. Examples include video editing, where a GPU can be used to speed up processes like encoding video, and computer-aided design/manufacturing (CAD/CAM) applications like AutoCAD, which can also use the GPU for significantly better performance.
Choosing a GPU is, therefore, an important part of building, buying, or upgrading a PC. As with every PC component, the first question to ask yourself when choosing a graphics card is: how will you be using it?
The gaming industry has pushed GPU technology faster and further than any other group. Today’s PC games are more realistic and complex than ever before, and the increasing performance of modern GPUs is both part of the reason why and a response to gamers demanding better-looking games.
Simply put, if you’re building a PC to play games, then the GPU will be your most important purchase. Other components can affect performance, like the CPU and RAM, but getting a GPU that’s too weak for your chosen games is guaranteed to result in disappointment.
There are different kinds of games, though, and not all of them demand the most powerful GPU on the market. That’s why it’s important to read a game’s required, recommended, and optimal specifications to make sure that you get a suitable GPU. Buying the best GPU you can afford is a good way to future-proof your build, and keep it ready to play popular games that have yet to be released.
Video and professional applications
Another demanding group of users are those who perform complex tasks like 3D rendering and video editing. High-end applications like AutoCAD and Adobe Premiere Pro can make use of GPUs to speed up processing and make for faster and more efficient workflows.
In fact, there’s a class of GPUs aimed specifically at these users. These workstation GPUs are optimized for these applications, and their drivers are certified to be stable and reliable. These GPUs aren’t always the best at powering games, even though they can be much more expensive than consumer GPUs.
We’re going to focus on more mainstream graphics cards in this guide. If you need a GPU to run professional applications, you’ll likely be looking outside of the normal consumer GPU market for the best options.
If you’re not going to be gaming or running creativity applications that can use a GPU to speed things up, you might not need to invest as much money in your graphics card. If you’re mainly running productivity apps, browsing the web, managing email, and performing other common low-end PC tasks, then you’ll want to spend more time picking out the right RAM, CPU, and storage.
Integrated vs. discrete GPUs
Some CPUs have integrated graphics, which are GPUs that are built into the same component as the CPU itself, or are otherwise closely interlinked with the CPU. These integrated graphics tend to be low-performance options, providing enough power to drive the operating system and run web browsers, email clients, productivity apps, and other routine software, but not enough for anything more than casual games.
What we’re talking about in this guide are discrete graphics cards. Standalone GPUs range from relatively low-cost, entry-level options all the way up to incredibly powerful GPUs that can cost well over $1,000 all by themselves. You can buy discrete GPUs as part of pre-built systems, for a PC you’re building yourself, to upgrade an older GPU, or even in a laptop.
Mobile vs. desktop
Choosing a GPU isn’t just important when you’re building or buying a new desktop PC. Laptop PCs use GPUs as well, and if you want to be able to game on the road then you’ll want to pay attention to whether a portable system is equipped with just the integrated GPU that’s built into its CPU or if it has a discrete GPU of some kind.
There was a time when mobile GPUs were very different things than their desktop counterparts. The great news for mobile gamers is that today’s gaming laptops use discrete GPUs that are very close in performance to their desktop equivalents or are optimized to fit an impressive amount of power into very thin and light notebooks.
Ray-tracing: the latest advancement in realistic graphics
Since we originally developed this guide, new technology has hit the streets that promises to dramatically improve the quality of gaming graphics. Called “ray tracing,” the technology allows for more realistic lighting effects using techniques that essentially simulate how light behaves. As Nvidia puts it:
“Ray tracing calculates the color of pixels by tracing the path that light would take if it were to travel from the eye of the viewer through the virtual 3D scene. As it traverses the scene, the light may reflect from one object to another (causing reflections), be blocked by objects (causing shadows), or pass through transparent or semi-transparent objects (causing refractions). All of these interactions are combined to produce the final color of a pixel that then displayed on the screen.”
Ray tracing has been a goal of the computer industry for years now, and it’s only recently that the hardware and software have caught up with the vision. Finally, consumer-grade GPUs have the power to perform effective ray tracing in games, and while the number of games adopting the technology remains low, it’s the future of gaming.
GPUs that can efficiently implement ray tracing are more expensive, and so that’s the primary consideration when buying a new GPU today. It’s likely that costs will go down over time, and so while we recommend buying a ray tracing GPU if you can afford it, there’s still a year or two before the number of games supporting the technology make buying such a GPU a must.
The GPU: Nvidia vs. AMD
When you’re shopping for a GPU, you’re choosing between graphics cards that build in all the components needed to power a PC’s display. These graphics cards include the GPU itself, which is a single chip that’s almost always going to come from one of two companies: Nvidia and AMD.
Historically, these two companies have battled for leadership in the GPU market, and Nvidia was strongly in the lead until the last few years. Nvidia still holds a strong position in the market, but AMD’s newest graphics cards have placed it in a far more competitive position.
When shopping for a graphics card, you’ll most often be choosing from models made by companies like ASUS, Gigabyte, and MSI, which put their own special spins on the core hardware developed by NVIDIA and AMD. Of all the various specifications you’ll come across when learning about GPUs, the GPU model itself is the most important. This is what tells you where the GPU falls in terms of overall performance, though specific graphics cards within a GPU model can vary in performance depending on a variety of factors.
Nvidia’s most recent GPUs are built on its Turing architecture, and its most popular and powerful GPUs are those in its 20-series. Nvidia has a wide range of GPUs covering the low end to the very high end of the consumer GPU market. In general, how many processing cores, called “CUDA cores” or “RTX cores,” an Nvidia GPU offers determines how powerful it is.
AMD has two consumer GPU architectures that are particularly relevant today. The first is the Radeon RX 500 series, which is its most affordable lineup, and the Radeon Vega series that represents AMD’s next-generation architecture.
The Radeon VII, built on a 7mm process, is the second generation of Vega GPUs. The company also has new architecture, Navi, that’s coming soon and will likely bring more powerful options to the company’s mainstream lineup.
Note that AMD’s term for its GPU cores is “Stream Processors,” and again the more, the better.
As you can see from the charts above, there are a few specifications that you will want to keep in mind as you look to purchase a GPU. Note that the information in the charts represents the design specifications for each GPU, and graphics card manufacturers (such as ASUS, MSI, and Gigabyte) have tweaked the basic designs to come up with their own performance parameters. That’s why it’s so important to do your research, including checking out benchmarks at sites like PassMark Software’s videocard benchmarks roundup that compare GPU performance.
The following provides a brief discussion of some of the specifications that you’ll find during your research.
Thermal Design Power (TDP)
The discrete GPU can be the most power-hungry component in a modern PC. If you’re building or upgrading a PC, then you’ll need to be careful that the power supply is sufficient to account for the GPU that you want to install. GPUs also generate a lot of heat and require sufficient cooling to run reliably and at top performance. Most graphics cards will include a recommended power supply size (in watts), and you’ll need to consider how much power is drawn by the other components in your PC as well.
The combination of how much power a GPU pulls and how much heat it generates is known as “thermal design power (TDP),” indicated in watts, and that’s the measure that you will see in a graphics card’s specifications. The higher the TDP, the more power that’s required and the more heat that the GPU produces. This can be important in both desktops and notebooks, where the latter is what puts the most constraints on which GPUs are available.
Note that as you are designing your PC or choosing a GPU upgrade, you will also want to research how hot a given graphics card runs at maximum power. This will help you choose the right cooling system for both your GPU and the PC itself.
Finally, it’s also important to know what kind of power connections a graphics card requires. Usually this is a mix of six-pin and eight-pin connectors, which the power supply will need to provide in sufficient quantity.
Discrete GPUs have their own memory where they store the data needed to ultimately display information on a screen. When considering discrete GPUs, therefore, you’ll want to consider both how much memory a graphics card has and how much bandwidth it provides.
The amount of random access memory (RAM) in your GPU is important for high-performance games that use large amounts of data to represent on-screen images. Also, if you’re running multiple 4K displays, then you’ll want more graphics RAM. However, generally speaking, you’ll get more graphics RAM as you buy faster graphics cards, and so as long as you buy a GPU that’s fast enough for your desired games, then you should have enough RAM to go with it, built-in.
RAM bandwidth is another important metric to watch. The faster the RAM, the faster the GPU can access information and display it on the screen. The GPU model generally determines the kind of RAM installed in a graphics card, and so once again as you choose the right GPU for your needs, you’ll get the right RAM to go with it.
Today, all discrete GPUs plug into PCIe slots, and most are 16x PCIe. GPUs vary, though, in how many slot widths they take up, including single, double, and triple slots. You’ll need to be sure that your PC’s motherboard has enough room for your chosen GPU, which needs to factor in any other components that you want to plug in alongside the GPU.
Of course, a GPU by itself isn’t worth much. It needs to connect to a display, or multiple displays, to be useful. There are a few different connections used by displays today, including DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort. VGA is an older connection that might still be available on some modern displays.
We won’t dive into the differences between these connection types. Suffice it to say, though, that you will need to make sure that your chosen graphics card supports enough connections for all the monitors you want to plug into your PC. Note that in many cases you can buy adapters to convert a connection on the graphics card to one that a display can accept.
For example, let’s say you have three monitors, two of which have HDMI ports and one that only has a DVI port. You need a graphics card with at least three ports in some combination of DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort. You can directly connect to each display or use adapters to convert, as needed.
Speaking of multiple monitors, not all graphics cards support the same number of displays. You will need to double-check the specifications to make sure a given graphics card can support as many monitors as you want to connect.
More than one GPU
Finally, some graphics cards can be connected to run in parallel with additional cards, which can provide serious boosts in performance for very demanding games. This is called Scalable Link Interface (SLI) for Nvidia and Crossfire for AMD. If you want to run multiple graphics cards in your PC, then you’ll need to select both the right cards and the right motherboards.
Buy the GPU that’s right for you
This guide has covered the basics of the world of graphics cards, but you can visit PC Gaming CR GPU section for even more information. Also, you can use PC Gaming CR comparison tool for a side-by-side list of how different graphics cards stack up.
Another resource to help you choose a GPU and graphics card are the games and applications you want to run. Most will list required, recommended, and optimal specifications, which will often include the CPU, the GPU, RAM, and storage. Survey the games and applications that matter most to you and make sure that you select a graphics card that will meet at least the recommended specifications.